Three years after the demise of Northeastern’s football program, one member of its final squad will be returning home this spring.
Defensive end Jason Vega was a standout football player at Brockton High School, graduating in 2005. For the last two seasons, the 25-year old has toiled north of the border, playing for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League.
Vega’s contract with Winnipeg expired Friday, and on Tueday he officially signed with the New England Patriots.
Having a Massachusetts native in the NFL like Vega, who lived in Randolph until he was 7 years old, is rare. But making his journey even more unlikely is that his playing career looked to be over two years ago.
Bypassed in the 2010 NFL draft, Vega had a brief stint on the practice roster of the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats that summer before a groin injury led to his release. He returned to Northeastern, taking a job in their athletic department as an academic adviser.
That was the first fall without football for Northeastern, which disbanded its program in early 2010, and for Vega, who took up the sport as a freshman at Brockton.
In 2004, Vega and Brockton took down powerhouse Everett High School for the state championship, but it wasn’t enough to get Vega a chance to play at Boston College or another school in the national spotlight.
Instead, Vega decided to stay close to home and to his family, joining two of his high school teammates at Northeastern, whose football team struggled throughout his tenure.
“There was a camaraderie among my teammates because we knew we didn’t get much support there,” Vega said. “It was just that (feeling) we had amongst each other, as opposed to being fan-driven.”
College football has struggled to take root in the Boston area, with the largest school in the city, Boston University, eliminating its program following the 1997 season. With minimal fan support, it would not be long before Northeastern followed suit.
“The whole time I was there, it was always kind of in the air,” Vega said. “(But) it was never given much thought because it was being dispelled by the higher-ups in the athletic department and the university. They said if it was something that was going to be done, then they would definitely let us know.”
During Vega’s senior campaign in 2009, a meeting was called. Players were told the program would be eliminated at the conclusion of the season. Northeastern’s coaches, Vega’s greatest advocates to NFL teams, would soon scatter.
Despite interest from several NFL teams, Vega went undrafted in 2010 and returned to Boston following his stint in Hamilton.
“I had kind of taken the mentality that I was done with football at that point,” he said. “After my experience in Hamilton I literally had almost given it up for a while and didn’t want anything to do with football for a little while.”
But while Vega’s parents supported his decision, they encouraged him to continue his playing career, even as the former CAA academic all-conference selection settled into his role in the Northeastern athletic department.
“They didn’t want me to live with a sense of regret with what could have happened,” he said.
In fact, the fire still burned within Vega too, boosted by some interest from the Green Bay Packers late in their Super Bowl-winning season.
“I can’t say that there weren’t times when I sat in my office and thought to myself ‘I’d rather be playing football right now’ or being competitive in something, when I felt like I could very well do so,” Vega said. “I just didn’t have the opportunity at the time.”
The NFL lockout soon hit, but Vega would get his shot to return to football in May 2011, signing with Winnipeg. In his first season, Vega tallied seven sacks, third-best on the Blue Bombers.
After making five sacks in 2012, Vega worked out with the Patriots in early December, but NFL rules prohibit teams from signing CFL players until after the NFL season ends. He cited the extra 15 seconds on the NFL play-clock as one possible advantage in making the jump from the CFL to the NFL.
Vega currently weighs 255 pounds and played as a stand-up linebacker at times at Northeastern, but envisions himself at defensive end with the Patriots.
“I think I will probably have my hand in the ground most of the time, and I’ll be moving in to three-technique in different situations,” he said.
While he followed the Patriots growing up, Vega knows he has an uphill battle to make it in the NFL, especially in New England.
“If I’m given the opportunity to actually walk out there during a game, further down the line, I’m sure that will cross my mind,” Vega said. “I’m a professional level now and I need to appreciate it for what it is.”